Film review – The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life: Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)
Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.

To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

The Tree of Life: Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)
Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?

The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.

The Tree of Life: Jack (Sean Penn)
Jack (Sean Penn)

However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.

Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.

Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Fantastic review of this magnificent film. We had people walk out of this at Palace Norton tonight, so its certainly not everyone cup of tea. One lady stopped and chatted with me for a while after the session. She loved it. Going to try and catch my second viewing of the film tomorrow night, and then try and correlate my thoughts into a review of my own.

  2. Great review. I particularly liked your understanding of the link between the creation of an individual life and the birth of the cosmos itself. Some reviewers can’t seem to get very basic points, such as the dinosaur scene. What a strange situation that so many people walk away from (out on) reflections life itself and whether our love and connectedness have any meaning beyond our individual hearts.

  3. I’m replying from the United States in South Florida. I grew up in the era of the film–not in Texas, but in Massachusetts in the Northeast. Yet my childhood was similar in many ways. Interestingly, my father owned the same cars as Mr. O’brien: a late forties Studebaker sedan and a 1955 Chevrolet station wagon. In the film, Mr. O’brien tells Jack that he must call him “Father.” At about that same age, I recall doing so spontaneously. In college, I studied Freud’s Oedipal constellation (it applies to girls and their mothers as well.). The concept has value, but I’m guessing it’s less widely taught now. It’s depicted powerfully here. Technically, in addition to stunning cinematography, Malick is a master of sound design (one of the few who really knows how to use surround). I’ve seen the film twice and got the same reaction you did the second time: it goes faster, and you see new facets of the work. As you observe, it will stand up to multiple viewings like any great work of art. You can’t get it all in one sitting, and you can “get it” in one sitting if you’re open to it. A dozen people left the first screening: perhaps half that for the second. At the end of the first screening, the film affected me so deeply that, quite unexpectedly, I broke into uncontrollable sobs, and I hid my eyes from the exiting patrons. And tears came after the second as well. It just didn’t hit close to home, it hit home. Thank you for an extremely fine review, which is art in its own right.

  4. Hi Andy, Raymond and Tom

    It’s clearly a divisive film, but it’s been heartening to hear that so many people are getting as much out of it as I did. Films like this remind me why I love cinema so much in the first place. It really is the work of an accomplished artist and those of us able to respond to it in the way that we have are very fortunate indeed.

  5. “… but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime.” Yes, Malick loves romantic culture.
    We can think in more recent references too. The representation of nature in this film is sometimes very close to Ansel Adams’ imaginary. And Adams has strong relations with some aspects of that romantic culture…
    Good review, although in my opinion you should make an effort to understand The Tree of Life primarily on the basis of Malick’s previous films. Example. That place where Jack reunites with his famaly is surrounded by mountains. The mountains have an essential place in Malick’s imagination since Badlands (you must see that film to understand this one), his first movie.
    Most of all, you should ask first: what “tree of life” is this? There are so many, it is a symbol with so many connotations. Was that the idea? Maybe. Or you can try to search the Tree in that eighteenth-century too: “Grey, my friend, is every theory / And green is Life’s golden tree.” (Goethe). Faust is an undoubtful source of that “I give him to you” scene? The three women are the “eternal feminine”. That is a commum opinion in the reviews. Some thoughts about this:

  6. Thanks for you comments Van.

    You clearly are very passionate about this film and have developed a very deep and complex reading of it. Most of us have only really scratched the surface in appreciating what it has to offer.

    Clearly there are themes and imagery that reoccur in all of Malick’s films. I re-watched The Thin Red Line recently (arguably the best film ever made about war) and was struck by how it similarly grapples with ideas about grace and nature, and the difficulty in reconciling how so much beauty and so much violence can simultaneously exist in nature.

  7. Mr. Caldwell, thank you for this beautiful piece of writing. I’ve become obsessed with The Tree of Life and by now have probably read five dozen reviews and analyses; yours is at the top of the list. You “get it” like few do. (A small but telling point: you’re the first person I’ve found who understands that adult Jack’s memory trip is triggered by the fact that it’s the anniversary of RL’s death–hence the candle in the small blue glass.)

    For better or worse, I now have the film on my MacBook and am watching certain scenes over and over. My reaction to the final sequence is the same as commenter Tom Norris’s above: I break down in sobs every time. Part of it for me is the coupling of the images and the music. I’ve known and loved the Berlioz Requiem since I was a teen. Malick’s putting those six ethereal Amens together with the poignant reuniting and letting go on the beach and beautiful, angelic Mrs. O’Brien’s reaching a place of reconciliation and acceptance that overcomes grief . . . it does me in.

    I used to think the major flaw in The Tree of Life was the lack of development of adult Jack’s character, as Sean Penn seems to have indicated in his comments. But the more I see the film, the more I think Malick knew exactly what he was doing. We know just as much about adult Jack as we need to. Where he is in life and what his journey has been since childhood are sufficiently delineated–in part by his few lines of dialog but mostly by Penn’s wordless acting, which is quite wonderful. In his very last scene, after the beach sequence and momentarily disoriented among the skyscrapers, that tiny final smile that Malick lets us see for a split second says volumes. We know that Jack has reached his place of reconciliation too.

    I’ll look forward to more of your reviews. Thank you again.

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